Obama’s Reaganite hopefulness for Iran

Iranians celebrate the nuclear deal in Tehran Tuesday.
Iranians celebrate the nuclear deal in Tehran Tuesday. AP

When President Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in November 1985, he whispered to the Soviet leader: “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”

Reagan had a point. His inclination to negotiate with the Evil Empire left many of his conservative friends aghast. In an otherwise affectionate assessment of the 40th president’s tenure, my Washington Post colleague George Will said that Reagan “accelerated the moral disarmament of the elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”

Further right, the conservative activist Howard Phillips accused Reagan of being “a very weak man” who had become “a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda.”

Iran is not the Soviet Union. But the Reagan legacy is worth pondering to understand why after the Iran nuclear deal was announced so many of President Obama’s critics leapt to conclude that the accord, as House Speaker John Boehner said, would “only embolden Iran – the world’s largest sponsor of terror.” Many of the president’s supporters were just as fast in backing him.

No doubt the instant responses can be explained by partisanship and whether the responder has faith in Obama. But these reactions also had much to do with attitudes toward the proper approach to an adversary.

Are negotiated deals ever to be trusted? Is hope that a hostile regime might transform itself always wishful thinking? Is avoiding war a legitimate goal, or is every negotiation a repetition of Munich and every promise of “peace in our time” shortsighted?

Those of us inclined to support what Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have achieved answer these questions with a combination of Reaganite practicality and Reaganite hopefulness.

It’s worth remembering that Reagan’s willingness to bargain with Gorbachev weakened hard-liners in the Soviet Union, creating the opening for its collapse. And there are parallels between the approaches that both Reagan and Obama took to a problematic foe. The Gipper was tough, and the Soviet Union realized it could not keep up with American defense spending. Gorbachev came to the table. Obama got our allies to impose much tougher sanctions, and Iran came to the table.

There is no way of knowing if this deal will lead to a transformation inside Iran, and there are legitimate doubts that it will. But Reagan’s skeptics were also insistent that the Soviet Union could never change or fall. Obama is now making a comparable wager.

Critics of this agreement fear that it will keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for “only” 10 years. But walking away wouldn’t buy us more time. Former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns noted that, absent a deal, “the ayatollahs would have been just a month or two away from a weapon.”

If the administration had torpedoed these talks, our partners would have been hard-pressed to maintain the current sanctions, let alone toughen them. The United States will now need to be vigilant in containing Iran. But, again, Reagan – like every president from 1945 forward – successfully contained the Soviet Union.

Three days after the Senate approved the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in May 1988, Reagan was optimistic at Moscow University. “We may be allowed to hope,” he declared, “that the marvelous sound of a new openness will keep rising...leading to a new world of reconciliation, friendship and peace.”

Obama was far from being as ebullient about Iran at his news conference Wednesday. But like Reagan, he’s willing to take a chance that reaching our goals through negotiation can be wiser than alternatives.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist for the Washington Post.